Franco's Legacy in Spain

Article excerpt

Byline: Arnold Beichman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Seventy years ago, a rebellion against democratic Spain broke out. It was a dress rehearsal for what became World War II. The civil war began July 17, 1936. It ended March 28, 1939, with the surrender of the republican forces and the ascension of Gen. Francisco Franco, 43, as head of state. Five months later, World War II broke out. Spain remained neutral even though Franco's sympathies were with Adolf Hitler. Or were they?

Franco stayed out of the war even though he was pressed to join by Hitler at their meeting in Hendaye, France, Oct. 23, 1940. Thus Spain was able to recover from a civil war which, according to Hugh Thomas' monumental history, "The Spanish Civil War," was responsible for 200,000 war dead and 130,000 executions by both sides, comparable to 6 million Americans killed. Franco, as the self-styled caudillo, remained prime minister until he died Nov. 20, 1975. Spain's political system changed from a harsh personal military dictatorship to a constitutional monarchy. The transition was peaceful, without bloodshed. A democratic Spain may not have been Franco's intention but it happened.

Perhaps it was, more or less, a peaceful transition because in the last Franco years there was an easing of the dictatorship. The Spanish word for dictatorship is dictadura. The last syllable dura means hard. Popular choice as early as 1959 had amended the word to dictablanda.

Counterfactual history might say World War II would have had a different outcome had Franco allowed Spain to become Hitler's base, With Gibraltar in Nazi hands, the Mediterranean would have been closed to the British fleet. Fortunately that didn't happen. But staying out of the war did not diminish Franco's unpopularity among those democratic publics who somehow could tolerate Joseph Stalin's murderous Moscow trials and even participate in communist united front groups. George Orwell put it well: "The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onwards is that they have wanted to be anti-fascist without being anti-totalitarian."

If there is one universally agreed concept it is that Franco was noncharismatic. Nor did he generate charismatic support. Charisma or no, he was able to keep Spain from flying apart. Regionalist tendencies were strong. Catalan and Basque nationalism are still powerful undercurrents. Franco brought all regions back into Spain by force, ending their dreams of autonomy.

Looking back at the 1920s and 1930s, we see the rise and fall of charismatic leaders and/or demagogues; Benito Mussolini, Hitler, V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Ataturk, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Huey Long, Mao Tse-tung. The nearest to such a type in Spain of the pre-Civil War era was Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, son of the old dictator, and his charisma, if any, is postmortem. Jose Antonio was killed by the Spanish Republicans shortly after the outbreak of the civil war.

So how was Franco, a man whose politics and opinions were unclear when he took power in 1936, able to become Spain's dictator, apparently with no commitment to any of his military peers or rightist politicians?

Franco was born Dec. 4, 1892, the second of five children. He was a small child and remained small: 5 feet, 3 inches tall as an adult. His birthplace, El Ferrol, site of a Spanish naval base in the northwest corner of Galicia, was a small town, 20,000 population, with few alien cultural influences to disturb its Gallego-Catholic ambiance. There seems some agreement he had an unhappy childhood.

His father, a naval paymaster, has been described as a bibulous amorist with little taste for family life. …